By Lisa Hefter
For The Bellingham Business Journal
I’ve been hearing and reading more and more about the concept of “authentic leadership” lately.
I view this as a good sign, because it suggests that leaders are being held to more constructive and effective standards of leadership, and that the criteria for how leaders are evaluated is evolving.
I’m fortunate to say that I’ve been surrounded by authentic leaders for much of my life, starting with my dad and continuing through my 24-year career at Peoples Bank — where the leadership team has allowed me to thrive as I worked my way up from a bank teller to my current role as executive vice president and chief financial officer
Now that I’m in a leadership position, it’s more important to me than ever to be a positive model for others.
So what does authentic leadership mean to me?
My role models have consistently embodied the five following traits, and have cultivated these qualities in me.
• Empathy: Sure, in any business you are there primarily to get a job done. But authentic leaders have empathy. They understand that personal issues may come up and employees need to put themselves or their families first. Throughout my career, I’ve seen it over and over again, that whenever an employee has a personal crisis, the immediate reaction is always “go, take care of yourself, we got this.” It’s a culture I’m proud of, because it creates dedicated employees and builds long-term loyalty. Empathy also extends to supporting employees’ passions and causes in the community at large — whether that’s providing paid time off for volunteer work, participating in local events, or contributing sponsorships and grants to the organizations your employees care passionately about.
• Self-awareness: This trait is essential for leaders, but is probably the hardest to attain, because you truly have to learn it from experience. Early in my career, I would often seek my dad’s advice for workplace issues. He taught me how to see both sides of every story, and how to focus on controlling what I could, and letting the rest go. He’d remind me to ask myself: What part did I play and how can I make it better? Learning this became incredibly beneficial for me as I took on more responsibility, because it’s vital to understand how you come across to others and to see all sides of a situation.
• Consistency: I think it is very important to provide dependable expectations and a consistent work environment that your team can count on. Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, described this as the ability “to stay consistent with [your] inner compass,” or what he calls one’s “true north.” Not knowing what is expected of you, or what mood your boss is going to be in on any given day, can really take its toll on morale. I always try to tap into my “inner compass” to lead consistently, and with high ethical and moral standards.
• Resiliency: An authentic leader acknowledges, learns from and moves on from their mistakes. I’ve learned a lot from my boss, whose policy is that if you make a mistake and understand how you’re going to fix it, then you need to address it and move on. Sometimes my employees will use me as a sounding board to think through how to solve an issue. I’ve learned that often, if I simply listen, my employees and peers will arrive at their own answers and path forward. They walk away feeling better because I didn’t tell them what to do. This also helps build empowered and accountable leaders.
• Transparency: An authentic leader, in my opinion, not only provides clear direction, but also communicates his or her vision openly and effectively, so everyone feels like they are working toward a common goal. I love this quote: “Transparency, honesty, kindness, good stewardship, even humor, work in businesses at all times.” It’s attributed to John Gerzema, author of The Athena Doctrine, which looks at the correlation between so-called feminine leadership traits and business/organizational success. It sums up my leadership approach, and is how I try to show up to work every day.
Leading effectively isn’t just about hitting your numbers or running the show. Gone too are the days when leading with an iron fist is rewarded. Authentic leadership is much more about the soft skills. It’s about putting yourself in your employees’ shoes, understanding their personal and professional goals, providing an environment where they can do their best work, and supporting their contributions to the greater community.
I’m thrilled to see the concept gain greater awareness and serve as a model and hallmark for the next generation of leaders.
Lisa Hefter, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Peoples Bank, was named the Puget Sound Business Journal 2017 Chief Financial Officer of the Year for small private companies.